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How Arthur Conan Doyle helped his dying friend finish writing his mystery novel.

Olivia Rutigliano

February 28, 2020, 3:34pm

On this sunny Friday afternoon, before heading to our weekend writing groups/brunches or whatever, let’s take a moment to think about writer-friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Grant Allen. There are few things more wonderful in this line of work than learning about writers supporting fellow writers.

Conan Doyle, super famous for writing the Sherlock Holmes series, and Allen, a very well-known science writer who dabbled in mystery and adventure stories, were neighbors in Hindhead, a small English village in Surrey (where Conan Doyle lived at an estate called Undershaw, and where he would write The Hound of the Baskervilles). Allen moved there in 1893, and Conan Doyle came about four years later. The region was known for its absurd topographical feature: a circular collection of hills nicknamed “The Devil’s Punch Bowl.”

Allen was an Oxford-educated, Canadian-born socialist and scientist, who taught at several universities before turning to science writing. He wrote a number of books and articles promoting the Darwinian theory of evolution, and studied neurology and psychology (kind of like a nineteenth-century Oliver Sacks—who actually cited Allen’s research, a century later). In his autobiography, Conan Doyle remembers how he roped his household staff in to learn about and help with his various scientific experiments. Allen was also a fierce iconoclast, and quite the prankster; Conan Doyle also remembers that Allen, known throughout society for his clever moments of blasphemy, he once showed up to a fancy dress ball dressed like a Cardinal. What a jokester.

In 1884, at the age of thirty-six, Allen turned to fiction writing, and not long after wrote a novel called The Woman Who Did, about a woman who had a child out of wedlock. It shocked the critics and became a bestseller. He went on to write a number of books about progressive young women, including a serial about a genius nurse named Hilda Wade, who solves medical mysteries (and tries to avenge the death of her father). But Allen was ill with liver cancer, and in 1899, when he was only fifty-one and still in the middle of writing, things took a turn for the worse.

“He was much worried,” wrote Conan Doyle, “because there were two numbers of his serial Hilda Wade which were running in The Strand magazine, still uncompleted. It was a pleasure for me to do them for him.”

Allen couldn’t move from his bed. “His brain, however, was as clear as ever, and his mind was occupied with all manner of strange knowledge, which he imparted in the intervals in his pain . . . I can see him now, his knees drawn up to ease internal pain, and his long, thin nose and reddish-gray goatee protruding over the sheet, while he creaked out ‘Byzantine art, my dear Doyle, was one of three periods . . .’ and so on until he would give a cry, clasp his hands across his stomach and wait till the pain passed before resuming his lecture.” Conan Doyle sat by Allen’s bed and took dictation so his friend could finish his novel before he died.

Conan Doyle added, later, that a fan had confused him for Grant Allen (they published in the same magazine, after all), writing to Conan Doyle to say that he and his wife had named their newborn baby Hilda Wade, after the protagonist, “in honor of me.” He added, referencing his writing, “he was really nearer the truth than appeared at first sight.”

Allen died in August of 1899, but every installment of his novel was published in The Strand the following year.

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